The Arab Spring and the "Spring of Nations"

Failed revolutionaries?

What do Europeʹs "Spring of Nations" of 1848 and the Arab Spring have in common? Both revolutions it seems were doomed to failure, with those involved forced to endure a long and icy winter of restoration. And yet there is a glimmer of hope. An essay by the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy

The "Arab Spring" designation harks back to the term "Spring of Nations", used by some historians to describe the European revolutions of 1848. Despite its Eurocentric character, the term could however prove useful when comparing the European revolutions of 1848 and those in the Arab world between 2011 and 2013.

After all firstly, just as in the Arab Spring, the revolutionary aspirations of 19th century Europe didnʹt stop at national borders. They gradually took hold in France, Germany and Hungary and ultimately gave fresh impetus to the protests that had previously erupted in Italy. In the same way, in the wake of its initial beginnings in Tunisia, the Arab Spring spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.

Secondly, the revolutions of 1848 were motivated by a profound sense of the urgent need to overhaul the status quo – even if Republicanism, as in the case of France, wasnʹt the only alternative up for debate. The definitive form of the political systems that the 1848 revolutions hoped to install may not have been entirely clear. Nevertheless, the bolstering of democratic institutions and the integration of broad swathes of the populace into the political process were fundamentals on everyoneʹs list of goals.

Rentier economies versus imminent revolt

In my view, the Arab Spring revolutions also emerged from the realisation that the political power structure in the Arab world, the foundations of which were laid shortly after the end of World War One, had outlived its usefulness and must be overcome. After all, all Arab regimes had failed to provide minimum levels of developmental progress and stability. Moreover, they werenʹt even able to defend their territory.

January revolution in Egypt on Tahrir Square (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
A brief summer of freedom: despite the failure of the "Arab Spring", the Arab revolutionaries are the only protagonists to have made any serious effort to address the structural crisis currently facing Arab societies. The regimes, on the other hand, continue to limit themselves to the deployment of raw, excessive violence and acts of retaliation against their enemies

Even those Arab states that attained a tangible improvement in living conditions for their citizens did not do this on the basis of a shrewd and sustainable development policy. They owed their success to a rentier economy based on trading with natural resources such as oil and gas. A success that was always accompanied by a fundamental democracy deficit and a lack of political co-determination rights for the populace.

Countries without oil deposits also relied on this kind of income source and propped up their economies on remittances from their nationals working in oil-rich states. Revenues thus generated undoubtedly helped to stall more widespread protests and provided regimes and rulers with a grace period that in some cases lasted decades.

The legacy of the Arabellion

In other words – just like the "Spring of Nations" –  the causes of the unrest in the Arab world were both structural and historical. It was not the outcome of a single specific moment in time. The failure of states in the Arab world following the attainment of independence is a complex and multi-factorial phenomenon, which among other things manifested itself in the Arab uprisings of 2011-2013. Even the flight of millions of people from the Arab world to Europe to escape Islamist terror can also be seen as resulting from this failure.

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Comments for this article: Failed revolutionaries?

"In Egypt, the counter-revolution under the leadership of Abdul Fattah al-Sisi would not have been possible without generous financial support from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates," writes Khaled Fahmy. Well, and have not major Western powers, especially the US, Britain, Canada, supported the Egyptian regime and kept channelling arms to Egypt and Saudi Arabia? Today, the dominant forces in the world are the Western powers and Western-dominated international institutions such as IMF and NATO. How come that an analysis such yours does not include the role of the major powers, their geo-strategic interests? Are they part of the revolutions or the counter-revolutions? The Russian regime is also a player in affecting the outcome of the Syrian revolution. Furthermore, is it outdated not to speak of classes in these revolutions? Shouldn't a comparison with 1848 include social classes?

Nadeem07.12.2018 | 18:25 Uhr

I also have one more question regarding the use of the term "reactionary". In a few "democratic" countries, the level of inequality has become almost unprecedented, in a country like England some businesses even do not allow unions, in many businesses, and even in universities, the pay gap is between 11 to above 30 percent... a media controlled by private corporations (e.g. 80% of newspapers in Britain are owned by 6 families). A global Dutch company doesn't recognise a union in Bangladesh. What we call "democracies" sell weapons to monarchies and dictators, some of them destroyed Iraq, have supported the Israeli colonial settler state, they have welcomed Arab rulers in their cities and received huge sums of money and investments ... On what basis we do not call those regimes with such features, and that are friends with reactionary regimes, reactionaries?

Nadeem07.12.2018 | 20:52 Uhr

Firstly, I don't think that this is accurate: "Even the flight of millions of people from the Arab world to Europe to escape Islamist terror can also be seen as resulting from this failure." Millions? The millions are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. If we count that 800,000 were accepted in Germany, we cannot speak of millions who entered Europe. Also, in the case of Syria, most of those who fled fled because of the regime's terror. Secondly, why do you put "The Spring of Nations" in inverted commas, but not "The Arab Spring". The latter was coined by a Foreign Policy magazine journalist, not by the Arabs or Arab historians? Thirdly, like Trump supporting Haftar, or Macron shaking hands with Sisi and selling arms to Saudi Arabia, the major powers were willing to see the Syrian regime overthrown. Obama quickly released aid to Egypt. There are a few other examples. Why don't you include them in the counter-revolutionary camp along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE? Fourth, and more importantly analytically, when comparing 1848 with 2011 shouldn't one compare the structures of the social formations? One society was industrialising. The other was not. Is a capitalist society different in its structure, class, politics, development, its people's aspirations, etc to a pre-capitalist one?

Nadeem10.05.2019 | 20:12 Uhr